Standing on the crater rim at the top of Rainier, with a stiff wind literally sucking the air out of my lungs each time I open my mouth to take a breath, I was struck by a memory of my past, as tangible as the taste of adrenaline tainted saliva and blood after being punched in the mouth. On a Boy Scouts trip to Colorado, when I was much younger, I was so terrified by the prospect of failure and beaten down by the constant ridicule and alienation of my peers, that I threw a tantrum/breakdown in order to avoid the groups side trip to the summit of Pikes Peak. I was so weak and insecure that I missed out on what could easily have been a moment of clarity that would have pushed me into the passion for mountaineering that I didnt develop until years later. This was not a definite point of divergence in my life, but it certainly typifies the direction that I was going in. My memories of childhood and youth are all characterized by feelings of loneliness, disenchantment, fear, and eventually the bondage of addiction.
Sure, Im still an emotional wreck, lucky to even be able to walk the streets without spontaneously scratching at imaginary sores and spewing unintelligible insults at total strangers. I could be peeling myself off of a makeshift bed of cardboard on the concrete steps of a church, trying to ignore the piss stains on my pants as I fish around for a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka that I think I have left from the day before. I could be turning tricks in a hotel in downtown Dallas, for the prospect of a few bucks to buy dope, a shower, and a dry place to spend the night. I could be found dead, drowned on my own vomit, with a broken bottle of Jim Beam in one hand and an eight ball in the other. Ive been clean and sober long enough to see every flavor of depraved, self-destruction that an addict can dream up in the self-loathing haze of abuse. Ive stepped over enough bodies to stop crying, and I can imagine every sort of failure and impotency. These are natural states, perfectly logical resolutions for people like me.
I never, in my wildest dreams, though, could have envisioned myself standing at the summit of Mt. Rainier, securing various climbing and safety implements to my pack and preparing to strap into a snowboard to descend a face and couloir so stunningly beautiful that I smile, ear-to-ear, just thinking about it. When I speak to friends of mine, who knew me when I was close enough to my last drink to shake uncontrollably every time I saw a beer commercial, they dont even recognize me. Our conversations are more like introductions than reminiscings of old times. I often fantasize about what it might be like to run across one of the tormentors of my childhood and to see the reaction on their face, when they discover the self-assured, aggressive adult that Ive become. The truth is that Im still lacking enough in self-confidence that I would probably feel the need to strike out, at the very least verbally, and make an ass of myself.
So, I was standing on the rim of the Crater, looking back on the overwhelming scope of the mountain that we had climbed over the past few days, choking on tears of awe, gratitude and a bit of pain as uncontrollable sobs wracked my throat, which was already raw from fighting for oxygen in the dry, cold wind. I wondered if my compatriots were having the same emotional experience.
Jef is still a little difficult to read, even though we have become close, trusting climbing partners on a series of amazing day-trips, overnight outings, and climbing experiences over the past winter season. The constant stream of inane comments and pointless conversations that I seem to be unable to exist comfortably without, are anathema to him. Im fairly certain that his general, reserved quietness is largely due to the fact that hes from Holland, a combination of cultural differences and discomfort with English, which is an adopted language for him. I generally have to provoke him a little to get a sense of hows hes feeling or judging a situation, and ironically, I think that this type of interaction fits perfectly into my personality. I cant seem to ever relax, stay quiet or stop delving into possibilities and ramifications of our decisions in the mountains.
I turned back to Jef and offered up a silly smile and a fist to pound against, in our standard greeting, parting and sign of congratulation. Im sure I uttered something ridiculously trite, such as Whats up? or Hell yeah! Jef responded with a broad grin and befuddled laughter, stumbling across a half-hearted attempt to formulate a sentence. This was what I was looking for, a sure sign that he was as moved as I was.
The day before, after a brutal, six-hour slog from the Paradise parking lot to our high camp at ninety-two hundred feet along the ridge on the Western border of the Wilson Glacier, Jef had been convinced that he wouldnt be able to summit. I have suspicions that he was struggling with a lackluster, physical performance on our Shasta trip a number of weeks before. Im certain that it was just a case of having a bad day, but I had been a little embarrassed to broach the subject, not wanting to come across as anything other than an empathetic peer. He had also been feeling slightly ill for a few weeks, as had I. We had both been physically disoriented by our last attempt at Rainier, in which we had made a thirty-three-hour round-trip drive from San Francisco to Rainier and back, having underestimated the severity of the forecasted weather conditions.
I had been having doubts, also, but I had done a better job of ignoring them. I had certainly underestimated the sheer quantity of terrain that we had to cover, above the Fuhrer Finger, the striking, hourglass couloir on the West side of the mountain, that was our chosen route. I had also allowed a prescription for inhaled steroids to lapse, and I hadnt treated my asthma for a good week. Struggling for air at nine thousand feet, I felt like I was already at eleven thousand feet.
Russ was quite a bit more intelligible in his expression. He was clearly taking a great amount of pleasure in our success. He had been to the summit of Rainier a few times before, so he was graciously more concerned with the experience that Jef and I had than his own. Throughout the two-day trip, he had occasionally expressed concern that he was slowing us down, but the opposite was true. Jef and I were both performing at less than optimal levels physically, and I know that, from my perspective, Russ was as strong as if not stronger than any other member of the team.
Jef and I have formed a tight, coordinated climbing team over the past year, and initially my hope was that he and I could complete this route on our own. We decided, however, that we should seek out a third climber in order to mitigate some of the risks of crossing crevassed glaciers. We came across Russ on an online forum, so we had some reservations about his reliability. Taking on a mountain such as Rainier with a relative stranger should always invoke a certain amount of skepticism. We were damn fortunate to have met him, though. The self-assured, steady nature that we noticed when we met him in person, on our first trip to Rainier, proved to be exactly what we needed to balance out the uncertainty that we were both struggling with, and his familiarity with certain portions of the mountain were a great relief and certainly saved us a ton of time that would have been lost in route finding.
I think that Russ may have, at first, been a little surprised by the crass humor that so often colors our climbing trips, but he was quickly in the mix, throwing verbal jabs and eliciting smiles from both of us. He has either a great sense of humor or unending stores of tolerance, to be able to smile through our bad jokes and seemingly unending lack of organization. We forgot more items on this trip, than weve forgotten all season combined. Fortunately none of them were indispensable or irreplaceable. The only troubling, equipment-related incident of the entire trip was the breaking of a strap from one of my bindings, as we were gearing up in the parking lot. Fortunately, Jef is a mechanically adept, furniture designer, and he was able to fabricate a temporary fix that lasted the entire trip.
Our climb from the parking lot to high camp was technically simple, and we were able to complete it without once donning our harnesses and roping up. The lower Nisqualy Glacier was still well consolidated, and the ominous, avalanche prone gully called The Fan, that gives access to the ridge that forms the Western border of the Nisqualy had stabilized after the recent storms. Its higher slopes were almost completely bare, and the gully that we had to climb up had already undergone various freeze-melt cycles. The only real concern was the high quantity of bowling ball-sized rocks sliding at slow speeds down the route. The top few inches of snow was mushy enough to keep them moving slowly, but if one were to have picked up speed, it could have been difficult to dodge it with a full pack and snowboard on my back.
Once we reached the top of The Fan and accessed the ridge, the views were astounding. For the next three or four hours as we approached our high camp, we were able to take in the intimidating scope of the mountain and to plot reasonable strategies for the following days climb. We were fortunate in that a few, better organized teams had set out for the Kautz route well ahead of us, and as we shared a large portion of their initial approach route, they had beat out a well-formed boot trail of steps. The first person to set the trail, though, must have been freakishly built with a left leg twice the size of his right one. The path consisted of endless high stepping with the left leg and short follow-throughs with the right. My left thigh is still sore, days later.
For each foot of altitude that we gained towards high camp, the wind became incrementally more of an issue. By the time we reached an elevation of eight thousand feet, I had begun to experience the wind in the manner of an overbearing employer that continually badgers his charges into submission. After taking a short break in the remnants of a previous partys camp, the final twelve hundred foot trudge to high camp was, for me the most difficult part of the entire trip. Even though we werent yet in the oxygen deprived, higher reaches of the mountain, my body was struggling under the weight of a full pack and a snowboard. I was also lacking the motivation that comes with proximity to attainment of a goal. Even though, I rationally understood that gaining high camp was an essential step on the way to the summit, it didnt elicit any excitement, rather an exhausted relief.
Just before reaching high camp, we passed a party of two climbers who were making their way down from the summit. They had just climbed the Fuhrer Finger, and we shamelessly tapped them for beta on snow conditions on the route and safe passage across the Wilson Glacier, which would be our first hurdle the following morning. One of the two climbers remarked at the skis and snowboards on our packs and asked whether or not we planned to take them to the summit. They seemed impressed at our plans and informed us that they had left their skis in camp, being unable to continue with the weight. They also expressed the opinion that the Fuhrer Finger was too exposed and dicey to be skied. As soon as they were out of earshot, Jef and I began to use their comments as a way to, in good nature, ridicule Russ. Being the only skier in our group, we felt the need to balance his clear weight-savings advantage with some humorous, verbal assaults.
Once in camp, after sucking down a liter of water, I began to shovel away at a tent platform and snow kitchen. We were able to nestle up against a stable pinnacle of rock that offered some protection from winds coming from the Southwest. Russ and Jef worked at erecting the two-man shelter that they would sleep in that night, and I began melting snow on our stove. By five PM, we were comfortably settled into our camp, lounging around the dugout kitchen, melting snow for water, downing hot drinks, snacking and preparing dinner.
On our approach to high camp, we had witnessed an ominous, dark cloudbank forming to the West of Rainier, but it never approached close enough to affect anything other than our view. By eight PM, we had all eaten and thoroughly hydrated our bodies, and we were ready to settle in for a few hours of sleep under clear, calm skies. Jef and Russ slept in the tent, and I bedded down in my bivy sack, in the trench formed by our kitchen. I had the advantage of a streamlined, cozy shelter, and the wind whipping around our camp only added a comforting rustling at the edges of my subconscious. Jef and Russ, however, reported in the morning that they had only slept in fits and short bursts, due to the incessant flapping of the sidewalls of Russs tent.
Each one of us had set multiple alarms on our watches (I had forgotten my loud, portable alarm clock), and we all slept right through them. My watch was actually strapped to the zipper of my sleeping bag, inches from my head, and I had stirred at ten minutes before midnight, our appointed awakening time, and checked my watch. I settled back in for ten minutes of light napping, but the next time I stirred, it was half-past midnight. Waking up thirty minutes late was perfectly acceptable but left no room for a gradual awakening, so I sat up quickly, and began the process of removing articles of clothing from inside my sleeping bag, donning them, and forcing my feet into still-damp boot liners and shells.
As a group, we set about efficiently packing our bags, stashing items that we were to leave behind and boiling water for coffee and hot cereal. By roughly two AM, we were all packed and tied in to our rope and prepared to set across the Wilson Glacier on the way to the base of the Fuhrer Finger.
Crossing the glacier was relatively easy, as previous parties had left clear tracks that had not been covered by new snow, and we only experienced one route-finding dilemma, which we quickly resolved. Each of us at various points of the crossing inadvertently stepped into a crevasse, with Jefs fall being the most serious. He punched through a weak snow bridge, leaving both feet dangling with no purchase. His snowboard caught on the rear lip of the crevasse, forcing his upper body and face into the snow on the opposite edge, giving him purchase to pull himself out. Each incident was reacted to by the team with lightning-quick, arresting action. We were all operating at a high level of awareness, and the glacier crossing boosted our confidence levels and helped us to feel competent in the face of the ordeals to come on the rest of the route. Jef expressed that he felt remarkably stronger than he had the day before. I wasnt feeling much better than I had on the approach, but I was certain that I had the physical resources necessary to get to the top and back down safely.
After a few minutes of uncertainty, and a quick consultation of the map and our altimeters, we set about climbing up the unremarkable entrance slopes of our route and into the unmistakable, hourglass-shaped couloir of the Fuhrer Finger. Unroped, we traveled quickly through the couloir. Again, we were fortunate to have the beaten boot path of a previous party to follow. As we made our way up the couloir, the wind picked up and gusted fiercely down at our faces, and in certain, exposed sections we had to occasionally jam our ice axes into the snow and duck against oncoming gusts. The snowboard that I was carrying on my back was definitely a liability at this point, acting as a giant sail, and at a few points, it took large amounts of courage to charge on between safe perches and wind gusts.
Rock fall was also a serious concern, in the Fuhrer Finger. As soon as the wind started, various rocks ranging from coin-sized pebbles to novel-sized man killers began whizzing by us, having fallen from hundreds of feet above. One as large as a golf ball pinged off of my ice axe, jammed in the snow directly in from of my torso, and left a dent in its shaft. Another, of undetermined size, smacked squarely into Jefs helmet, just as he was ducking forward against the wind. None of us were unreasonably shaken by the rock fall, but we were certainly happy to exit from the exposed shooting gallery of the Finger, two thousand feet higher.
Once above the Fuhrer Finger couloir, we followed the snowfields along edge of the upper Nisqualy Glacier, until we were forced onto the Glacier itself. We roped up again, and traversed a short section of the glacier, then made a steep climb up the highest reaches of the Wapowety Cleaver. As we had made our way up the Fuhrer Finger, we had followed the progress of two rope-teams of three below us. They were traveling quickly, and they caught up to us, just as we were preparing to step off of the upper Nisqualy. We chatted with them for a few minutes, as we were organizing our rope, and discovered that they had started form the parking lot that morning at twelve AM and were attempting to climb to the summit via the Fuhrer Finger and to down-climb the Emmons Glacier route, all in less than twenty-four hours. They were traveling with very little in their packs, which explained their speed. Their goal was nonetheless quite impressive, and as far as I know they were successful. Both teams passed us near that point.
As we topped out at the end of the cleaver and joined the Kautz route, the wind became an overwhelming presence. Each time I opened my mount to breathe, I could feel the air inside them being sucked out, and the only way at times that I could get a full breath of air was to cup a hand over my mouth. Writing this, five days later, my throat is still sore from the effort. I was becoming complacent and inattentive due to the constant battering of the wind, and my asthma-related respiratory struggles, and I stupidly forgot to put on sunscreen lotion. This mistake left me with severely blistered skin on my upper lip and nose that has also lingered on into the following week.
In a meeting of recovering addicts, a few days after the climb, I had a moment of self-conscious embarrassment. A homeless man, clearly suffering from years of addiction, exposure and mental illness stumbled into the meeting, after it had started with the clear motivation of getting his hands on some free coffee and cookies. It would be reasonable to assume that after years of going to these meetings and running across literally thousands of guys just like him, that he wouldnt upset me. However, perhaps due to my heightened emotional state after the climb, I shuddered at every jerky, erratic movement that he made. He toppled a stack of coffee cups, smashed a plate of cookies as he jammed his fist into them, and thrashed uncontrollably as he walked across the back of the room. He had clearly lost control of his muscles and nervous system after years of self-abuse.
As most of the other participants of the meeting tactfully ignored him, I couldnt help but take a long, calculating look. I chuckled to myself as I realized that his appearance and mine were probably not so different. My face was bright red, with weeping blisters, and splotches of green where I had loaded the skin with gel from an Aloe Vera plant. The irony was not lost on me that even in the height of my personal achievement, I could draw direct comparisons between myself and a gutter drunk. As healthy and accomplished as I may become in my life, I should never loose site of how fortunate I am, and I should never forget that physical and mental health doesnt make me fundamentally better or different than my peers, or even immune to their hardships.
We took purely psychological shelter next to a glacial ice boulder, as the wind whipped around all sides of it and through every opening in our garments, no matter how minor. After resting for ten minutes and filling our stomachs with protein bars, energy gels and sports drinks, we roped up again and stepped out across the glacier into the well beaten path along the final slopes to the summit. The next few hours was composed of short bursts of energy, in ten step increments, followed by hunching over our ice axes and gasping for oxygen. We inched slowly towards the summit, each of us managing our own internal battle over the bodys instinct at self-preservation and the irresistible draw of the summit.
Sometime near two PM, we topped out on the rim of the crater and made our way to the highest point on that side of the crater. The actual summit is roughly three hundred yards across the top of the mountain from where we were standing. We were satisfied with our high point, though, as the difference in elevation is a matter of a few feet or none, depending on snow conditions, and we were eager to get to the business of descending. We had reached the top much later than we had expected, and we were all expecting time-consuming difficulties at the point where the upper Nisqualy Glacier butts up against the Wapowety Cleaver. Additionally, clouds had set in, and a moderate flurry of snow was coming down. We were all feeling the pressing fear of impending poor weather.
We sucked down some water, nibbled at a snack, then arranged our packs for the descent and mounted our skis and boards. Aside from being slightly frightening, the light snow falling graced our descent with the atmosphere of a winter playground. We were all alight with giggles and whoops of joy, as we made our first turns off of the top of the mountain. The upper snowfields were severely hardened and compacted by wind. However, with limited exposure and occasional patches of softer snow, we were able to take chances with speed and maneuvering, often with humorous results. A group of climbers making their way down from the summit took the opportunity to take a break and watch as we made fools of ourselves trying to catch air off of sastruggi and wind lips.
The first ten or fifteen turns that we made were torturous on our already exhausted legs, but as we descended lower, increased oxygen and softer snow allowed us to open up our speed and simply enjoy this interaction with the mountain. We made our way conservatively down the ridge that forms the upper portion of the Kautz route to within four hundred feet of the junction of the Wapowety Cleaver and the upper Nisqualy Glacier. At this point, we decided to rope-up and down-climb the short, steep slope. Our decision was based on poor snow conditions and the constant danger of an uncontrolled slide into gaping crevasses below us. We also knew from experience that the final ten feet to the glacier involved gapping a crevasse of undetermined size.
Down-climbing this section involved seated and running belays, using pickets, and time-consuming attention to detail. In retrospect, we all felt as if we could have descended on our boards and skis. However, we definitely made the correct decision. There was no room for uncertainty or indecisiveness, and a mistake in that section could easily have been fatal.
On our boards, again, the snow was spectacular, and we made our way quickly into the upper mouth of the Fuhrer Finger. This is the couloir that we had worked so hard to ski and ride, that we had been obsessively pursuing for months. We all had concerns about the time of day and snow conditions, as we had originally envisioned sun-softened snow at midday for our descent. However, cloud cover, wind and low temperatures had conspired to form a thin crust over edge-able, corn snow.
The turns were better than any of us could have imagined. The interplay between my graphite base, wax, and bouncy snow created the perfect balance between sensitivity and responsiveness and surf-like flow. Each adjustment and movement of my legs was translated into a springy cushion of tension, and I felt in total control of my board. I was able to play with the contours of the couloir and rocket straight down the middle of it with little fear of sliding out of control. I cannot imagine better conditions for riding a long board like mine, and this run will stand out easily as the best of the entire year for me. It was steep, fast, controlled and natural.
All three of us took turns carving up fresh sections of the couloir, and then met up above the final stretch onto the Wilson Glacier. As we stopped and turned to look at our tracks in the snow, unmistakable pride flashed across our faces. We had left a pattern so closely resembling the shape of the caresses that I visit upon my wifes back, that I blushed. Rainier had given me a rare moment of perfect joy, and I had offered up my thanks, subconsciously stroking its flanks.
Russ then treated us to the most dangerously exciting portion of our trip, an unroped ski across the Wilson Glacier, directly into camp. Having skied the Haute Route the year before, he was quite confident in navigating glaciers, and Jef and I were willing to cross it, as long as he went first. Riding directly into camp was a magnificent way to cap off our descent.
After quickly packing away the items that we had left at our high camp, we strapped back into our boards and began a long, descending traverse to the top of The Fan. Their was a foot-deep layer of heavy, wet snow sitting in top of an older consolidated base, so all of the slopes we were crossing were subject to wet slides. The lower we descended, the more dangerous the slopes became, and we were forced into risky, wet-slide management tactics. Initially Russ led out, laving a fan of slides behind and below him, but his legs tired quickly. I took over, as riding a board in these conditions is infinitely easier than skiing. Speeding across thirty-five degree slopes with a good half-mile of foot-deep wet slides hissing behind me was incredible and felt guiltily pleasurable in the its sheer danger.
In deference to the garden of small rocks littering its slope and dirty, heavy snow, Russ and I plunge-stepped down the lower half of the fan. Jef rode all the way to the bottom, confirming my belief that there is no terrain he cant ride gracefully. We met up at the bottom of the Fan and trudged across the lower Nisqualy Glacier. I was, by this time, in the midst of a full-blown asthma attack, but I was beaming with relief and pride at our accomplishment.
Like all great routes, this one threw a final obstacle at us, the four hundred foot hill on the Eastern border of the Nisqualy Glacier. This was easily the most miserable slog of the trip, and as we pushed our way upward, the mountain matched our mood by spitting light rain flurries at us. Once up, we strapped on our boards, again, and careened, bobsled style down the worn, foot trail and just to the few concrete steps leading down to the parking lot.
On my way from the bathroom to Russs car, at this point surrounded by piles of steamy, stinky gear, a gentleman roughly my age approached me and asked me what the beer of choice was after climbing Mt. Rainier. Without the slightest hesitation, I told him, I dont drink beer, so I wouldnt know, but I am having some orange juice.
He patted me on the back and said, Oh, well, it means something, errr
you know, good job, and he walked away.
This quick moment of interaction has been repeating itself at the edge of my consciousness for a number of days, and I have just now taken the time to examine why it made such an impression on me.
For the better part of my childhood, and even my adult life, I have felt like an outsider among my peers. As a child I was constantly ridiculed for my odd behavior and actions and relegated to an existence of isolation and fear. As an adult, I have struggled to suppress my nature and personality, in an attempt to fit in to the world of professionalism and business. All of my life, my interactions with others have been tainted with the warranted fear that they would somehow recognize my glaring weaknesses and exploit them, and in all that time I have nurtured a seething hate and resentment for my tormentors.
Looking back, now, I recognize in the stranger in the parking lot, the confidence and plainness of a socially adept individual. Just as a rabbit can smell a predator wolf from a distance, I could subconsciously sense that this man was one of the predators that haunted my youth.
In the moment of our interaction, I was focused solely on the joy of the experience that I had just undergone, and I was acting in the self-confident, deliberate manner that I so often struggle to imitate. He didnt recognize me as prey, and I didnt recognize him as a predator. The great gift of snowboard mountaineering, for me, is the chance to function in complete absence of my ego and with complete attention to the wonder of now, any given moment. For that day, I had been absolutely free of the bondage of self.
Give me liberty, or give me death!